by Deborah Yetter, Louisville Courier Journal –
In an “epic story of academic intrigue,” a jury will hear allegations from a former University of Kentucky dental professor that criticism of Gov. Matt Bevin’s changes to Medicaid dental benefits cost him his job.
That’s the description of a federal judge in Lexington who ruled that a lawsuit by Dr. Raynor Mullins against the dean of the UK College of Dentistry, Dr. Stephanos Kyrkanides, may proceed to trial on Nov. 6.
Mullins filed the lawsuit last year.
In refusing the dean’s request to dismiss the case, U.S. District Judge Robert Weir found Mullins, who had a career of more than 40 years at UK promoting oral health, established evidence of a potential violation of his constitutional right to free speech.
The dispute arose in 2016 after Mullins and four colleagues filed public comments opposed to Bevin’s sweeping plan to overhaul Medicaid and eliminate basic dental and vision coverage for up to 500,000 of the 1.4 million Kentuckians covered by the state-federal health plan.
Their comments were highly critical of plans to cut dental coverage in a state with high rates of dental decay and disease.
Bevin was angry over the comments, Kyrkanides told Mullins, the lawsuit said.
The dean later fired Mullins from the post-retirement job he held at the UK Center for Oral Health Research after consulting with other faculty members on the best way to “get rid” of him, the lawsuit said.
While the claims are disputed by Kyrkanides, “a jury will decide what actually happened,” Weir’s order said.
Kristi Willett, a spokeswoman for the UK medical center, said officials were disappointed with Friday’s ruling not to dismiss the case but added, “We look forward to our day in court.”
Mullins, 75, said last year that it wasn’t an easy decision to file the lawsuit, saying he had “great affection” for both UK and the state. But he said he was motivated by his desire to “inject transparency” into the circumstances surrounding his departure from his job at UK.
His lawyer, Joe Childers, said the lawsuit raised troubling questions about academic freedom at UK.
“The university should take this seriously,” he said.
Meanwhile, federal officials are still reviewing Bevin’s plan to overhaul the Medicaid program that includes work requirements and other changes aimed mainly at able-bodied adults.
The Trump administration approved it this year. But a federal judge struck down the plan and sent it back to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for further review, saying it didn’t meet the objectives of the Medicaid program to provide health coverage for vulnerable citizens.
The Bevin administration prompted an outcry in July after it abruptly terminated dental and vision benefits to hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians after the court ruling.
Within two weeks, the administration restored the benefits after news reports of hundreds of Kentuckians being turned away from dentists’ offices statewide, some with severely decayed and abscessed teeth.
But the state still plans to eliminate basic dental and vision coverage from Medicaid for some people if the federal government approves Bevin’s plan. Instead, such individuals could purchase dental and vision coverage through a “My Rewards” program in which they participate in such activities as volunteering or taking online classes.
The changes continue to draw strong opposition from oral health advocates and others.